Infant disorders linked to pollution in Haifa Bay, says new study
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Infant disorders linked to pollution in Haifa Bay, says new study

Smaller-than-average heads, low weight, add to earlier cancer findings; government wants more oil refineries, says mayor

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter.

Pollution in the northern Israeli city of Haifa, April 15, 2015. (Basel Awidat/Flash90)
Pollution in the northern Israeli city of Haifa, April 15, 2015. (Basel Awidat/Flash90)

New research suggests a link between a high rate of infant disorders in the Haifa region and air pollution caused by heavy industry situated next to the northern port city.

Symptoms of pollution-related disorders include smaller-than-average heads and relatively low weight, in addition to the high rates of cancer identified in previous studies, Channel 2 News reported Sunday.

The Haifa Bay is home to oil refineries, power plants, manufacturers of chemicals and metals and a major port, all of which have been a source of concern for residents after recent studies found higher cancer rates in the surrounding towns.

The circumference of some infants’ heads has been recorded at 20-30 percent less than elsewhere, says the research by Haifa University, which was commissioned by the Health and Environmental Protection Ministries and was only due to be published in a couple of months.

The Haifa Region Association of Towns has slammed the report as “inaccurate.”

The study identifies Kiryat Haim, Kiryat Bialik and south east Kiryat Tivon as the epicenters of pollution-related disorders, and says residents there are five times more likely to develop lung cancer and lymphoma as those living elsewhere in Israel.

File: At least 1,000 activists and Haifa area residents crowd the Kiryat Haim suburb to protest Health Ministry findings that linked heightened cancer rates in the city with high levels of air pollution, May 3, 2015 (screen capture: Facebook)
File: At least 1,000 activists and Haifa area residents crowd the Kiryat Haim suburb to protest Health Ministry findings that linked heightened cancer rates in the city with high levels of air pollution, May 3, 2015 (screen capture: Facebook)

In response to Channel 2’s report, the Environmental Protection Ministry said Sunday that based on its own “working assumption” that air pollution in the Haifa Bay was too high, it had developed a program whose implementation had seen an 11 percent drop in pollution. That was still too high, the ministry said, and the new research would form the basis for the program’s second stage.

Haifa Mayor Yona Yahav said that during discussions last week, he had been surprised to hear government officials voting in favor of expanding oil refineries in Haifa Bay. “We are fighting 24 hours a day,” he said, adding that he personally had closed the oil refineries and that the courts had ordered that they reopen again.

Haifa mayor Yona Yahav, July 2009 (photo credit: Shay Levy/Flash 90)
File: Haifa Mayor Yona Yahav (file photo: Shay Levy/Flash 90)

MK Dov Khenin (Joint List), who heads the Knesset’s social-environmental caucus, said “the serious finding about infant morbidity combines with findings that are already known to us about the scope of people suffering from cancer and lung diseases in the Haifa area.”

The subcommittee for planning and environment in the Haifa Bay, which he headed in the previous Knesset, had submitted a detailed program to cut emissions, which included halting plans to expand refineries and to create a new port for fuels, he added.

“The dramatic investigation illustrates just how urgent it is to implement the subcommittee’s recommendations, and to put a stop to the government policy, which gives preference to the polluting industries over public health.”

A spokesman for the Haifa District Municipal Association for Environmental Protection said the association was “sorry about the inaccurate data… The research is accompanied by a professional forum made up of representatives of the health and environmental protection ministries and the Haifa District Municipal Association for Environmental Protection. When there are full and corrected results, we will be happy to bring them to the public’s attention.”

In April 2015, hundreds of Haifa residents took to the streets in protest after reports that the Health Ministry’s chief of public health services, Prof. Itamar Grotto, had found that half of the cases of cancer in Haifa children were due to the city’s air pollution.

Grotto’s study also found that from 1997-2008, in the Haifa metropolitan area in general the rates of cancer were 16 percent higher than in the rest of the country in 16 of the 18 types of cancer checked. Certain types of cancer — lung cancer, for instance — were even more prevalent: 29% more in Haifa than in the rest of the country.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this story.

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